Ipswich: Evening Star reporter Paul Geater ‘banned’ by county council - for telling the truth

The Evening Star’s Suffolk County Council reporter, Paul Geater, has today been banned from getting comment from the authority - for simply telling the truth.

No comment.

That is what the Suffolk County Council press office say they will respond to any queries put forward by The Evening Star’s local government correspondent Paul Geater.

And why? Simply for telling the uncomfortable truth that more than �12,000 of taxpayers’ money has been spent on paying for council chief Andrea Hill to have sessions with professional “change” guru Sol Davidson.

Mr Geater, who was has worked as local government correspondent for The Star since 1994 and never been banned before, was told by a senior press officer Andrew St Ledger that the county council’s press office was no longer prepared to work with him following the story about the training sessions for Mrs Hill.

This action has been condemned by both the town’s MPs, who have labelled it “ridiculous”.

The saga unfolded when the Evening Star newsdesk received unsolicited e-mails from a member of the public containing the results of Freedom of Information requests about training sessions for senior staff at Endeavour House.

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These were passed on to Mr Geater who read them and then did some research into Mr Davidson, who had worked with chief executive Andrea Hill in 23 sessions at a cost of �525 a session.

He then contacted the county council press office for a comment.

Mr Geater told the press officer which FoI requests he was talking about – each FoI at the county has an individual number.

He also sent copies of the FoI pdfs – after removing the name of the member of the public who had sent them to the newspaper.

After senior press officer Mr St Ledger had seen them, he called back and said the council would be issuing a statement later in the day. He indicated that the amount of money involved – �12,075 over nearly three years – did not seem excessive but stressed this was not an official comment.

He asked where the story would be used. Mr Geater pointed out that was not a decision for him to make. The press officer said he suspected it would be on the front page.

The council statement, published in full in the story, arrived at 5.15pm on Thursday.

On Friday Mr Geater had a pre-arranged meeting with the county council first thing which was amicable, but at lunchtime received a call from Mr St Ledger indicating that the press office would no longer be prepared to work with him.

He was told any request for information from the press office would be met by a “no comment”.

This was personal to him – other journalists from the Evening Star and our sister paper the East Anglian Daily Times would be treated as normal.

Mr St Ledger said that the tone of the article contributed to the decision by the press office not to speak to him in future.

Evening Star editor Nigel Pickover said: “I have seen the Freedom of Information request, together with the answer from Suffolk County Council and stand by Paul Geater and our story 100 per cent.

“The ban is as laughable as it is ridiculous – the county council needs to get its message across, not to suppress it because they are unhappy with what it sees as the tone of a true story.”

Ipswich MP Ben Gummer said: “This is bizarre behaviour from the county council. Councils should be publishing all details of invoices they pay in any case, so it’s hardly as if they can keep these figures a secret.

“Paul was only doing his job – reporting on what the county was spending our money on. And with public finances so tight, it is only right that he does just that. The council needs to stop this silly vendetta.”

Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dr Dan Poulter said: “This is ridiculous, it is a crazy decision. It is important to have journalists to hold authorities like the county council to account.

“There is nothing unreasonable about these stories – people have the right to know how public money is being spent.”

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